Brands, give consumers some distance, says new research

February 23, 2021

Scott Connors, Assistant Professor, DAN Department of Management & Organizational Studies

Marketing managers want consumers to feel closely connected to brands but new research from Scott Connors and co-authors shows that brands may be better served accepting a level of distance between themselves and consumers and communicating accordingly.

The paper, “They’re Just Not that into You: How to Leverage Existing Consumer-Brand Relationships through Social Psychological Distance”, was published in the Journal of Marketing and is authored by Scott Connors, Mansur Khamitov, Matthew Thomson, and Andrew Perkins. Connors is an Assistant Professor in the DAN Department of Management & Organizational Studies.

“People think of brands metaphorically,” said Connors, considering brands as they would think about other relationship partners, including having best friend brands – those they feel define their identity – or secret affair brands – brands they use, which they do not want others to know they use.

He said most consumers only have around two brands they really care about. Connors said companies can determine how close someone is to a brand through market research, such as a net-promoter score. They can also look as data on social media, including how people may talk about a brand. This data could be supported by other markers and a profile of someone who would typically be socially-distant from a brand could be created.

Connors pointed to Walmart’s Great Value store brand as a brand some people feel connected to, while others, who still purchase the brand, feel distant. In the study, participants were asked to think about either a close or distant brand relationship, and were told to think about a brand they use in their day-to-day life that fits that description. Families and consumers concerned with budgets felt a close connection to the brand, while younger consumers felt more distant.

“The dominant marketing practice has been to try to shift people to close relationship, but the research shows that there could be a better way to do this,” said Connors.

Instead of trying to move consumers to close, committed brand relationships, he said brands can appeal to how distant the consumer may feel from the brand.

Consumers who feel closely connected to a brand can be persuaded with concrete language, focusing on how a brand can impact them, or, in the example of charitable giving, how a donation makes a difference.

People who are more distant to a brand are more affected by abstract language, such as answering the why question, such as why a donation is important and impactful.

“If you alter brand communications to match the level of distance the consumer is to a brand, the information matches what the consumer already have stored in memory,” said Connors. This match will make the information easier to think about, leading the consumer to feel good about the information they are receiving.

“It doesn’t shift them to feel any closer,” he said, “but it can result in an increase in spending that could be akin to the spending of someone who is close.”

“We are not saying that close relationships don’t matter. A close relationship with consumer is very important,” said Connors. “We are saying that maybe we need to realize that not every consumer wants to be close to a brand, and saying, here are some ways to speak to those consumers instead of trying to move them closer to a brand they don’t want a closer relationship with.”